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regular-article-logo Monday, 26 February 2024

A different time

Prophetic words. Large sections of the Indian media, of which I am a part, will have to one day answer this question: Unlike Frank Wills, why did you desert the watchman’s post?

R. Rajagopal Published 08.12.23, 06:29 AM
A man reading the Washington Post after the resignation of Richard Nixon.

A man reading the Washington Post after the resignation of Richard Nixon. Sourced by the Telegraph

Epoch-making events often overdose on mundanity. When Günter Schabowski, a bureaucrat of the communist party in East Germany, fluffed his lines, the mix-up rapidly accelerated the fall of the Wall. The economic reforms of Manmohan Singh were launched through a bland announcement — “Sir, I beg to lay on the table a statement (Hindi and English versions) on Industrial Policy” — read out by a minister of state.

Likewise, the finest moment in journalism was chronicled in three columns — a middling perch in the newspaper food chain — on a Sunday on June 18, 1972. Frank Wills, a 24-year-old security guard, noticed that a hotel door connecting a stairwell with the basement garage had been taped so it would not lock. Wills removed the tape, “but when he passed by about 10 minutes later, a new piece had been put on. Wills then called police. Three officers from the tactical squad responded and entered the stairwell.” They arrested five suspected burglars.

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The report was written by staff writer Alfred E. Lewis. At the end of the report were the names of eight other reporters who contributed additional information. Two names among the eight would eventually inspire generations of youngsters to become typewriter guerrillas. The two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, would also bring down President Richard Nixon. Needless to say, the newspaper was The Washington Post and the facility that was burgled was the Watergate Hotel.

A story that has been told countless times needs to be retold now to contrast the ways in which the United States of America and India responded when suspicions of snooping on the pillars of democracy surfaced — in the latter half of the 20th century in America and in the early half of the 21st century in India.

If the offices of the Democratic Party were sought to be bugged in an election year in the US during the Nixon presidency, the Pegasus scandal and the Apple alerts about possible “State-sponsored” attacks on the phones of public figures and journalists were freighted with far wider implications.

The sheer sweep of the Pegasus scandal that broke in July 2021 was astounding: the spyware was allegedly used on Opposition leaders, Supreme Court judges, journalists, investigators and statutory officials. Fewer than 30 months later, on October 30 this year, the Apple alerts went out to Opposition politicians and journalists. Among the politicians so alerted were some of the senior-most public figures, including the Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge. Well-known journalists in the country, such as The Wire news portal co-founder, Siddharth Varadarajan, were on the list. A probable first casualty of the alleged covert operation is the Trinamul Congress MP, Mahua Moitra.

Yet, quiet flows the Ganga. Not a political leaf has so far as much as stirred, let alone fallen, in India — unlike in America where the Watergate scandal snowballed in two years from a three-column report to a banner headline that screamed “Nixon Resigns”.

Why? It may be appropriate to remind ourselves of how the institutions in America reacted when the Watergate scandal erupted.

The press

Undoubtedly, the podium finish belonged to the Post. Like a tenacious bulldog, the newspaper refused to let go of the bone it had sunk its teeth into even when storied competitors smirked. Woodward and Bernstein kept at it for nearly 800 days, hunkering down and digging. Editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham stood by their reporters — and stood up to the most vicious occupant of the White House till then, who threatened the Post with “damnable, damnable” problems.

Years later, Graham was asked: “Can you say truthfully that you never said to Ben Bradlee, ‘Ben, come on, it is beginning to cost us’.” Graham replied: “Heavens, no. I wouldn’t say that. And I don’t think it would have moved him a bit, if I did.”

The best compliment came from James Reston, the celebrated and controversial columnist for The New York Times, the Post’s lofty rival that badly misjudged the Watergate break-in as a mere burglary. Asked if it was a matter of dismay at the Times, Reston conceded: “They knocked our socks off on Watergate.”

As an afterthought, Reston deadpanned: “I think Ben is almost good enough to be on the Times.”

The bureaucracy

Woodward could not have sustained the scoops without the help of ‘Deep Throat’, an FBI official who leaked information to the Post reporter that was instrumental in implicating Nixon. Mark Felt, the informant who remained anonymous until 2005, did not forget to add an occasional mischievous — and devilish — twist: he would schedule meetings with Woodward by indicating the time in the reporter’s copy of The New York Times!

In India, too, bureaucrats have always been sources of leaks. But unmonitored accessibility has become increasingly difficult, not just in New Delhi but also in most state capitals in the age of digital entry and electronic surveillance.

The judiciary

A judge played a decisive role. Judge John J. Sirica “kept badgering defendants and witnesses on matters not covered in the indictment — namely, the financial and institutional involvement of the White House,” according to Britannica, the encyclopedia. The judge took the “contentious step of passing exceptionally long provisional sentences on the defendants” (which allowed the accused to ponder the punishment for a few months). Sirica indicated that if the defendants spoke frankly at the hearings, the sentences would be reduced. Sirica ordered Nixon to surrender his recordings of the White House conversations to federal prosecutors. “Almost single-handedly, with great courage and risk to his reputation, Sirica had broken the case wide open,” Britannica recalls.

In India, the Pegasus controversy reached the Supreme Court. A court-appointed committee concluded last year that malware was found in five out of 29 phones submitted to it, but the use of Pegasus could not be confirmed. The committee said the Centre “has not cooperated” with the investigations. Parts of the reports were made public but the full files remain in sealed covers. In May this year, the apex court said an early date would be set for examining the status of various recommendations made by the committee.

Media fraternity

The rest of the American media initially ridiculed the relentless coverage by the Post. But once it became clear that Watergate was the biggest political scandal in US history, a large section of the media pulled out all plugs.

After the Senate set up a speci­al investigation committee, the he­ar­ings were telecast non-stop for 15 months. “The hearings were at first covered gavel-to-gavel on all three commercial television net­works — a business sacrifice that spoke to the remarkable civic high-mindedness with which the country approached the Watergate inquiry,” Britannica points out. “Soon the networks began showing the hearings on a rotating basis. Some Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations, however, continued to broadcast the hearings live daily, other PBS stations reran telecasts of the hearings at night, while still others did both.”

In India, Pegasus stayed in the headlines because of the court case. The Apple controversy practically disappeared from most of the mainstream media after a few days.

The big lesson

Nixon “controlled the universe at that time, politically” — in the words of Robert Redford, who play­ed Woodward in the movie on the Watergate scandal, All the Pre­sident’s Men.

In the middle of the Post’s aggressive coverage, Nixon, like Narendra Modi, was re-elected in one of the largest landslides in US electoral history.

Some public figures in India construe election victory as a trial by fire that cleanses them of all sins, imaginary or otherwise. But to the credit of the Post, the newspaper swam against the popular tide — until it could run the dream headline: “Nixon Resigns”.

Bradlee, the cocky Post editor, was asked how he would respond to any public backlash against the press: “Hunker down, hunker down. Go about our business, which is not to be loved but to go after the truth.”

The greatest tribute to Wills, the guard who foiled the Watergate break-in, was paid by Rep. James Mann when the last nail was being driven into the Nixon presidency: “If there is no accountability, another President will feel free to do as he chooses. But the next time there may be no watchman in the night.”

Prophetic words. Large sections of the Indian media, of which I am a part, will have to one day answer this question: Unlike Wills, why did you desert the watchman’s post?

R. Rajagopal is editor-at-large, The Telegraph

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